Speculation on the Origins of Santa Claus, Part One: Saint Nicholas and Krampus

First, let me say that I’m no expert on any of this. All I have going for me is an internet connection and a penchant for procrastination. I also have a tendency to obsess over things that don’t really matter. Hence my seasonal interest in the origins of Santa Claus.

When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me that Santa Claus was an Americanized version of Saint Nicholas. This made sense to a degree — at least linguistically — but it didn’t explain everything. For example, what was a fourth-century Greek bishop doing with a team of flying reindeer? And why did he keep trying to slide down chimneys? Weren’t there easier ways to give presents to good little girls and boys?

As it turns out, my grandfather was only telling a small part of the story. Yes, there was indeed a fourth-century bishop named Nicholas who was known for his generosity. And, yes, the Dutch corruption of his name into Sinterklaas evolved into today’s Santa Claus. But there’s also a lot more to the story.

Again, this is sheer speculation, but I’d describe Santa Claus as a cultural hybrid, a nexus of myths surrounding the winter season, a handful of characteristics that congealed over time into a single character.

One of the big mysteries that haunted me as a child wasn’t so much the logistical nightmare that must have been involved in leaving presents under every Christmas tree in the world in the span of a single night or even how Santa Claus managed to squeezed down chimney after chimney, but why he’d ever bother doing such a thing. After all, if everyone was expecting him, and he was going to be leaving us presents, then why didn’t we just leave our doors unlocked on Christmas Eve? It just didn’t make sense.

Unless, of course, there was something they weren’t telling us about Santa Claus. Like the fact that the business of sliding down chimneys is based on the Germanic myth of Krampus, the Grinch-like holdiay demon known for slithering down chimneys and stuffing children into burlap sacks.

Personally, I love this concept, because it says a lot about the culture that invented it. Instead of telling children to be good so that they’ll get a lot of presents or, at worst, find fossil fuels in their stockings, the Krampus myth gave parents the power to tell their children to be good lest a demon creep down the chimney, stuff them in a sack, and take them to hell.

I’m a little hazy on the details, but I also think I read somewhere that one variation on the Krampus myth involved fairies or elves who captured Krampus and forced him to be good, which explains his eventual move to bringing gifts to children in the dead of winter, and also most likely explains where Santa’s elves came from.

Today, there’s a Krampus-like figure in many countries throughout Europe. He goes by several names, including Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Black Peter, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, and Klaubauf; and he’s usual the counterpart to a Santa Claus figure.

But what about the fact that Santa Claus is always winking at people? And what about the reindeer? Okay, so the first of those two questions is just there to allow me to make my next point, and the answer to the second is a bit of a stretch. But you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to read about them…